Paul Iddon, journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan
Drones proliferated widely around the world in the last decade. These range from new armed drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which more countries than ever now possess, to less sophisticated commercially available drones that one can buy relatively cheaply. Consequently, there is an increasingly alarming prospect that the latter category of drones can be weaponized and potentially used in terrorist attacks by radicalized groups or individuals against Western countries.
Experts consulted by European Eye on Radicalization evaluated the likelihood of this dire prospect becoming reality in the near future.
“The threat is very serious for several reasons,” said Samuel Bendett, a Research Analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses’ (CNA) International Affairs Group and Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
This, he said, is because drone technology is already widespread and easily obtainable through “normal commercial channels.”
“In fact, any simple hobbyist drone today can be turned into a deadly combat version — that is what happened in Syria when ISIS used simple Chinese DJI drones,” Bendett said.
In recent years, the Islamic State demonstrated on several occasions how commercial hobbyist drones can be modified to drop small grenade-size bombs with “badminton birdies for tails.” Even though the bombs are not accurate, the drone’s small size makes them quite difficult to shoot down.
Furthermore, the Islamic State also demonstrated a nascent ability to use these nimble drones for swarm attacks. Had they gotten more time to develop and improve this capability, they would have posed a much more serious threat against military and densely-populated civilian areas.
ISIS’ drone capabilities reached their peak in 2017, before losing their self-styled caliphate’s biggest city Mosul to a US-backed Iraqi offensive. The drones were certainly not game-changing weapons but they, nevertheless, demonstrated how these relatively simple pilotless aircraft could become deadly weapons.
Also, they are forcing militaries around the world to develop defences against drones. While an ISIS quad-copter was once shot down by a US Patriot missile, this is an unsustainable way of defending against such aerial threats. Patriots are designed to hit larger airborne targets. Also, an average Patriot missile costs approximately $3 million, meaning that if groups like ISIS manage to use drones — which cost a few hundred or thousand euros a piece — in a swarm attack such expensive and sophisticated missiles could quickly become depleted.
In light of ISIS’ use of such drones, Bendett said: “We have learned that such a threat is persistent, widespread and ever-present.”
Consequently, militaries now require anti-drone C-UAS (Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems) defence systems on “every fighting unit — technology that can identify, track, jam and down such UAVs.”
“Such C-UAS technology must be readily available and constantly tested to ensure it can track all kinds of UAVs — from small hobbyist drones to more sophisticated long-range UAVs,” Bendett said.
However, this might not be enough to stop lone individuals or groups from using makeshift armed drones for terrorist attacks.
“Given what is taking place all over the world, the logical conclusion is that there is little that can prevent an enterprising and willing individual to fashion such a drone,” Bendett said.
The real question, in his view, is to “what extent security services and commercial enterprises most likely to be attacked — such as sports venues, for example, or industrial/chemical plants — are working to develop their own C-UAS procedures and technologies.”
Bendett pointed out that during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, authorities and security forces stationed C-UAS and electronic warfare systems at the game’s venue to guard against potential drone threats.
Nick Waters, an ex-British Army officer and open source analyst for the investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat, where he has done extensive research on the use of drones in modern-day conflicts, noted that smaller drones are significantly more difficult to shoot down.
Larger drones are only effective in asymmetrical conflicts. Still, even there if the opposing side has even the most basic air defences, then those drones have little means to protect themselves.
“Larger drones can already be countered effectively by traditional anti-aircraft capabilities,” Waters said.
Conversely, smaller hobbyist drones “could actually be more difficult to counter precisely because they’re so small.”
He explained that there is presently a huge range of new countermeasures being tested and installed, but he has yet to “see one that’s universally effective.”
He also outlined just how difficult it can be to defend against small hobbyist drones that just about anybody can buy off the shelf.
“In terms of physical counter-measures, firing into the air isn’t exactly effective (the British military actually carried out a test and found it required a ridiculous number of rounds to hit a small drone) and from what I understand the drones are mostly too small to hit with MANPADS,” Waters said. MANPADs are portable surface-to-air missiles often used by infantry to defend themselves against low-flying aircraft or helicopters.
All this leaves are electronic countermeasures, which Waters pointed out depend on the context and location of their use.
“In London, you’ve got a very complex electromagnetic environment so you can’t just jam every frequency, but if you’re in the middle of the desert, you can probably use those kinds of assets a lot more freely,” he said.
At present, it’s hard to anticipate just how lethal makeshift drone terrorist attacks might be.
“We have not yet had an attack like that in the West,” Bendett said.
However, there are proactive steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of such attacks. Examples Bendett gave are the mandatory registration of private drones and “drone flight pattern enforcement.”
“A lone-wolf attack may have limited damage since such small drones can only carry so much cargo weight (a few grenades or small bombs, for example), so the actual damage may be minimal,” he said.
Aside from afflicting small numbers of casualties or material damage, a successful lone-wolf terror drone attack could have far larger psychological or economic consequences, especially if one were to strike a sports venue or public festival and force “long-term cancellations and instil public fear.”
Radicalized individuals may well try to mount such an attack in hopes of achieving such an outcome.
Bendett also pointed out that non-state actors and criminal gangs are already using UAVs to reach out to people who are in jail “or to deliver key supplies to protected areas that normally would prevent any other type of contact or communications.”
Aside from commercially-available drones, non-state actors are increasingly acquiring military-grade drone systems.
“The technology to make a more sophisticated drone is also becoming widespread — and obtaining commercial satellite navigation tech and software is easier today than 5-6 years ago,” said Bendett.
He noted that non-state actors can now increasingly more sophisticated armed drones with support from the increased number of state actors, who have successfully developed their own drone capabilities.
“That is how the Houthis is Yemen got their hands on sophisticated drones from Iran to strike Saudi Arabian targets,” Bendett said.
In September 2019, in an unprecedented move, drones and cruise missiles operating in unison struck Saudi oil facilities. The kingdom’s expensive and sophisticated air defence systems, which included US-built Patriot missiles, were unable even to hinder that attack, which Tehran is suspected of carrying out or at the very least sponsoring.
Furthermore, in Syria, Russia’s main airbase in Latakia has become the target of mysterious drone swarms made up of improvised drones rigged with explosives. While these have so far failed to inflict significant damage, they do show these groups are procuring the technology and capabilities that are superior to those possessed by ISIS a mere three years ago.
Also, more recently, US troops in eastern Syria have been targeted by small drones dropping “mortar bomb-like munitions” similar to the kind of weaponized hobbyist drones used by ISIS in the past. More alarmingly, some of the munitions appeared to have been produced by 3D printers.
Various groups in the Middle East are working frantically to improve their drone capabilities, which would give them an edge over their numerous adversaries.
“We are working day and night to develop drones that can be put together in a living room,” said Abu Alaa al-Walai, the leader of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, an Iranian-controlled Shiite militia in Iraq.
Waters believes the threat posed by drones is potentially very serious, and not just from terrorist groups.
In December 2018, for example, Gatwick Airport near London had to close temporarily due to reported drone sightings near the runway. Hundreds of flights were cancelled and over 140,000 passengers had their journeys affected.
“The Gatwick incident, which closed down a key piece of critical national infrastructure for almost 48 hours, showed what can be achieved by a person or persons with a drone and an effective plan,” Waters said.
“I actually think that incident, more than ISIS attacks, has made decision-makers sit up and notice this.”
For those wishing to plot drone attacks, the hard part is making the explosives or munitions. However, even here, according to Waters, “we’ve seen, that kind of expertise can be obtained.”
With all this being the case today, it’s simply unrealistic, as well as irresponsible, to discount the potential of radicalized groups or lone-wolf attackers utilizing this technology in order to wage new forms of terrorist attacks in the not-too-distant future.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.